Before his assassination, Samir Kassir foresaw the extent of Assad’s brutality in Syria today
Nine years ago on Monday, a car bomb exploded in an upmarket area of Beirut, killing Samir Kassir, one of the most prominent liberal Lebanese journalists. The assassination came during an incredibly turbulent period in modern Lebanese history, shortly after the killing of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri’s murder triggered mass demonstrations, which eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
The withdrawal was not, however, the end. Syria’s long occupation of Lebanon had been mutually beneficial to business and security elites in both countries and the two were wrapped together. Within a few months, other critics of the Syrian government were killed: Gebran Tueni, Pierre Gemayel, George Hawi. Kassir’s murder – like that of Rafik Hariri and the others named – has never been solved, but it was widely assumed that Syrian security services, or their supporters in Lebanon, were behind the killing.
Kassir was a relentless critic of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, or what he called Syria’s “protectorate”, and his reading of the dynamics of the region was insightful. Indeed, it is interesting today – as Syria awaits the results of an election which poses only one question and to which there is only one answer – to look back at Kassir’s thoughts on Syria and see that in many ways Kassir understood the dynamics of the Assad regime then better than many understand it now.
Three ideas are worth noting: the idea that Bashar Al Assad would or could reform Syria; the centrality of Lebanon to Syria’s regional plans; and the importance of the security narrative for both countries.
Start with the first. “I never succumbed to the illusion that [Mr Al Assad] would willingly reform his regime,” Kassir said in an interview in 2004. He was talking about a period, in the early 2000s, when Mr Al Assad was under immense pressure. Then, before the Arab Spring, and even before the Iraq war went seriously bad, a time when it still looked like US tanks might roll from Baghdad into Damascus, when the international scrunity on Mr Al Assad was intense, Kassir was sceptical about Mr Al Assad reforming.
How much worse is the situation in Syria today. Those who imagine that Mr Al Assad might reform after the election are mistaken. Reform requires pressure. And where might the pressure for reform come from?
If Mr Al Assad was not willing to make real reforms in the period Kassir was talking about – with the US military at his door – nor in the period directly after protests began in Syria in 2011 – when the trajectories of Tunisia and Egypt were clear – why would he reform now, when there is neither pressure nor incentive from the international community?
Mr Al Assad knows he will never satisfy those who support the rebels – unsurprisingly, reforms will never be enough for those whose homes have been blown up, fathers tortured, daughters raped – or their backers outside. So reform will not occur. Indeed, the opposite will happen.
Kassir’s second point was about the centrality of Lebanon. Writing at a time when Syria still occupied Lebanon, Kassir recognised that the powerful in both countries were intimately linked; Syria’s security tentacles reached deep into the Lebanese state. Reforming one required reforming the other.
What was true then remains true a decade later, even after Syria’s withdrawal. One of the reasons the protesters and, later, the rebels, couldn’t unseat Mr Al Assad was because removing the Baathist state in Syria meant removing a big part of the state in Lebanon. With the exception of Egypt (because the peace treaty with Israel depended on the regime), none of the other Arab Spring countries were like that, where the regime was so locked into a neighbouring country. The fate of a big part of the Lebanese state depended on the survival of the Syrian regime.
That brings us to Kassir’s third insight: that the long occupation by Syria had entrenched the “security narrative” across both countries. This wasn’t merely a Syrian-Lebanese phenomenon: the back-and-forth of that region’s wars between Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria meant that the security narrative became dominant across all those countries. It remains the case in all four today.
But Kassir was critical of this security narrative in the context of Lebanon’s national project, its grand reconciliation after the civil war. Indeed, even the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon did not end that narrative. As I wrote last week, it merely entrenched it.
How much worse is that security narrative today, in both Syria and Lebanon. A return to life as usual in Syria is impossible to imagine in the near- or medium-term, and as long as Syria is unstable, Lebanon will be too. The security-first mentality that has led Israel’s lurch to the political right has had the same effect across the Levant.
If there is one area where Kassir’s analysis no longer applies, it is in his assessment of the internal cohesiveness of the Assad regime, which he felt was multipolar. But the civil war has changed all that. Today, Mr Al Assad is the regime.
The loss of Samir Kassir had a serious impact on liberal secular thought, not merely in Lebanon but across the region. It is still being felt today. Yet his ideas endure. If Kassir were alive today, he would be interested to see his analysis of the dynamics of Mr Al Assad’s Syria remains valid. But perhaps he would not be surprised.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Updated: June 4, 2014 04:00 AM